Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Barnett, Henry Walter (1862–1934)

by Paul H. De Serville

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Henry Walter Barnett (1862-1934), by unknown photographer

Henry Walter Barnett (1862-1934), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23001101

Henry Walter Barnett (1862-1934), photographer, was born on 25 January 1862 at St Kilda, Victoria, son of Lewis Barnett, merchant, and his wife Alice, née Jacobs, both London-born Jews. Barnett began as a studio assistant to Robert Stewart of Bourke Street about 1875. A fellow-assistant was Tom Roberts who remained a close friend until late in life; Barnett claimed to have arranged the first sale of a Roberts painting in 1881. At 21 Barnett set up a studio in Hobart but sold out to his partner in 1884, and travelled via the United States of America to London, where he joined the society photographers W. & D. Downey.

Returning to Australia, Walter Barnett opened the Falk Studios in Sydney in 1887. He soon became one of the leading portrait photographers in the country, distinguished for his ability to bring out bone-structure and texture of the skin. Among professionals he was noted for his thorough methods and for his flair in conducting business. He made more studies of his sitters than was usual; a perfectionist, he employed highly skilled craftsmen and ran his studio stylishly and without attention to cost, asking previously unheard-of fees. Apart from his plutocratic clientele, his most notable sitters were visiting actors and actresses, especially those brought out by his friend J. C. Williamson; Bernhardt sat for him during her tour of the colonies. On 18 July 1889 in Sydney he married 20-year-old Hilda (Ella) Frances Clement Forbes; the couple became known for their lavish entertaining although reputedly Barnett never smoked and rarely drank.

In 1896 Barnett met Marius Sestier, who had visited India and come to Australia as an employee of the Lumière brothers. Recognising the potential of motion film, Barnett took Sestier with him to film scenes of the Melbourne Cup in November. These, with scenes of Sydney Harbour which Sestier had developed in Barnett's studio dark-room in September and October, are among the first moving film to be shot in Australia; they were shown in Sydney in October and November. Although his connexion with the cinema did not last long, Barnett's place in the history of Australian cinematography is assured.

On 1 February 1897 Barnett left for London where he soon established himself as a leading photographer, with a studio at Hyde Park Corner and later in Knightsbridge. His sitters included the royal family and many prominent in English society. The portraits, printed on specially prepared paper from platinotype and placed on flexible vellum mounts, resembled, in the opinion of an English obituarist, fine mezzotint engravings. The negatives, on glass and varnished, were still in perfect condition forty years later and formed a library of photographs illustrating the development of style and technique, taken by 'one of the fathers of professional photographic portraiture'. Barnett was prominent in the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain and a foundation member of the Professional Photographers' Association. From all accounts he was a man of vigorous personality and cosmopolitan taste, somewhat aloof in manner and dedicated to his work.

In 1920 Barnett sold his business and retired to the south of France. He had always preferred the company of artists (Streeton considered Barnett had a 'good, strong appreciation for the beautiful') and now devoted his attention to the collection and sale of contemporary French art. In early 1927 he brought an exhibition of Provençal paintings to Melbourne, but an offer to arrange an exhibition of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists was rejected by the trustees of the National Gallery. In 1933 in Paris Barnett published a pamphlet critical of the trustees of the Felton Bequest, urging them to buy works of the contemporary French school rather than pay inflated prices for works by old masters. A plan to write an account of artistic life in Australia in the 1880s, using his correspondence with Roberts, was announced in 1933, but he died on 16 January 1934 at Nice, survived by his wife, whose portrait by Longstaff is now in the Art Gallery of South Australia. Barnett's death attracted little notice in his own country, though Jack Cato was later to claim that his work represented the culmination of nineteenth-century photography in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • R. H. Croll, Tom Roberts, Father of Australian Landscape Painting (Melb, 1935)
  • Smike to Bulldog — Letters from Sir Arthur Streeton to Tom Roberts, R. H. Croll ed (Syd, 1946)
  • J. Cato, I Can Take It (Melb, 1947), and The Story of the Camera in Australia (Melb, 1955)
  • M. Wasson, The Beginnings of Australian Cinema (Melb, 1964)
  • E. Reade, Australian Silent Films (Melb, 1970)
  • British Journal of Photography, 26 Jan 1934.

Citation details

Paul H. De Serville, 'Barnett, Henry Walter (1862–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barnett-henry-walter-5139/text8601, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Henry Walter Barnett (1862-1934), by unknown photographer

Henry Walter Barnett (1862-1934), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23001101